Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 22

 

 
 
 

The worst thing in the world, Jim thought, was what you already knew. The complete unknown was nothing, a cakewalk in comparison. Say, for instance, you walk out the back door of a house on fraternity row, and something you've never imagined in your whole life is there waiting for you. Well, hell, either your heart stops, or your senses blow like a string of bad fuses. Either way you're out of your misery.

But suppose it's something you already know about. Something you've been waiting for and dreading all along. Maybe it's so terrible you tried to argue it away and pretend it didn't even exist, or maybe you wanted to tell Blair Sandburg about it, but Blair was just too hurt and too exhausted to deal with your problems on top of his own. And now the damned thing is dragging itself up your front steps, so it's a little late in the day to try and argue it out of existence anyway.

In fact, the only thing left to do, Jim thought, helplessly watching as Blair staggered and cursed, yelling at him and crying out in pain and shock, was to simply turn tail and run. Out the back way or down the fire escape, keep running as long and hard and as far as his legs would take him. It would mean leaving Blair, and there had been a time not very long ago when it would have been easier for Jim to contemplate leaving an arm or a leg behind. But then there had also been a time when he thought he could protect Sandburg, and obviously that wasn't so anymore, if it had ever really been true. Professor Nagle had been right about one thing. When Jim had shot Ross Maltiz in the head, he hadn't been thinking about all the other people at risk in the library, no matter what he told Blair afterward. He had killed Ross because he was holding a gun on Sandburg. No mystery, no two ways about it. The only strange thing was how the hell Nagle had known.

It didn't matter, because if death itself wasn't enough to keep a bad man down, then there was nothing Jim could do for Blair anymore. Jim had been a soldier for eight years, a cop for seven more, and if there was one thing he had learned, it was that there was no fighting the dead. They'd lay you out every time. The friends you were too late to save, the enemies who died in your place--Jim carried them all in his head, quiescent for the most part as the years rolled away, but he'd never forgotten what an uneasy truce it was.

Shattered forever, now. Nothing could pick up these pieces again.

"Jim," Blair gasped. He was supporting himself with one hand braced on the dining room table, stretching his other arm desperately out to Jim, and though his face was agonized, he made his voice gentle and soft. "Help me, Jim. I can't get to you by myself."

Jim couldn't help him. He couldn't even help himself. He remained where he was on the couch, shaking with horror, and Blair drew his hand back, supporting himself with both arms on the dining room table, his eyes darting back and forth, obviously trying to gauge the best way to make it to Jim's side without Jim's help. "Hey," he said again in that same measured, gentle voice, "I don't know what you're hearing right now, but it's been a real bad night for both of us, and until we can figure out what's going on here, I want you to just shut it down. Whatever's out there in the hall, just don't listen to it anymore."

Blair didn't believe him. What else had Jim expected? Jim hardly believed it himself. "But Chief," he said anyway, helpless to stop the words rising in his throat like bile. "Blair, it's trying to talk to me."

Blair made a terrible sound, low and choked, and he lurched toward Jim. His bad ankle gave way beneath him and he sprawled headlong. Blair never stopped crying out, pleading with him, trying to make Jim listen to him. Jim was listening; he just couldn't do what Blair asked. The best he could do was jam the side of his hand into his mouth to stop himself from laughing out loud, because when he laughed, Blair's eyes went cold and dead, and Jim could not stand to see it. Blair reached the loveseat, crawling, and hauled himself upright. He was hurting so much. Jim heard his pain in every labored breath, in the sickening, yielding crunch in Sandburg's ankle, in the sobs that didn't stop him from calling to Jim over and over again.

Jim had to get away from here. He couldn't do anything for Sandburg, and his presence was just making matters worse. Another thump came, this one louder and closer. Blair's head jerked up, and he looked toward the front door, the whites of his eyes gleaming in the light of the single candle. The thing wasn't in the stairwell anymore. It was closer than that, in the hall that led to their front door, a man three days dead and falling to pieces with every step. Jim heard everything. Blisters tearing open in the decomposing flesh, maggots pattering to the floor, blood sloshing in its lower limbs. Jim heard a soft, wet pop, smelled the sudden seepage of gas, and heard the rotting remains of Ross Malitz's internal organs drop to the wooden floorboards.

Jim moaned. He stumbled to his feet, intending to run, but his legs gave way and he crashed to his knees. "Jim," Blair gasped, and even though Jim knew he would never escape if he looked at Blair again, he turned his head to see. Blair had clamped his hand over his nose and mouth, and his eyes were round as saucers. "Oh my god," Blair groaned past the hand over his mouth. "Oh my god." He gagged and doubled over the loveseat, the knuckles of his left hand white as he gripped the cushions. The fetor stood in the room like the darkness itself, and although Jim's heart and mind were scoured with horror, still he felt a startled sense of relief so sudden and profound tears welled up in his eyes.

"Blair," he whispered. He planted his hands on the coffee table and staggered to his feet again. He was shivering clear through to the marrow, weak as a kitten, but himself for the first time in days. For the first time since he had awakened from a dream of Jack Pendergrast coming back from the river, and heard Ross breaking himself out of the morgue.

Supporting himself on the arm of the loveseat, then leaning his hip hard against the back to keep from falling, he reached Blair at last and raised Blair's head with his own trembling hand. Blair's face was wet with sweat and tears and bath water, and he was panting for breath, his teeth bared, his eyes wild with terror. "Chief," Jim tried again, and his own voice cracked. The thing in the hallway managed another impossible, monstrous step, dragging its guts along behind. Air currents shifted with its movement and brought a fresh gust from the graveyard rolling into the room. "He's out there," Jim gasped. "Can't you smell it?" He was less afraid of the  thing outside their door than of the possibility Blair might deny it still, leaving Jim alone in this terrible new world where the men you killed sometimes came back.

Blair looked at him. His mouth worked, but nothing came out for what seemed to Jim an eternity. "Jim," he spoke out loud at long last, his voice almost conversational save for the rising quaver. "Ross is dead. He should not be walking around out there."

Jim laughed out loud, and this time it was the laughter of wild relief, not the bray of madness. He put his arms around Blair and pulled him into a fierce embrace. "I know," he whispered, and almost started laughing again. Instead he held Blair tighter. Blair's arms were around him in turn, Blair's head pressed hard against his shoulder. He was taking snuffling breaths, hands clutching the back of Jim's sweater, and when he managed to speak, Jim couldn't tell if he were laughing or crying either.

"Jim, what are we gonna do?"

"Damned if I know." Jim raised his hand to stroke the back of Blair's head once, then loosened his embrace, wanting to get Blair around the sofa so he could sit down. Neither one of them was very steady on their feet. "I think I was hoping you could tell me."

Blair remained rooted in place, but he lifted his head. His face was white as the bathrobe belted around his shaking form, but a bewildered, terrified smile was on his face. He slid his arms forward and clutched at the front of Jim's sweater. He couldn't support himself that way, and Jim grabbed his forearms, trying to brace him. "First thing let's do," Blair announced, swaying, "is let's not open that door."

"Yeah," Jim said, choking back another half-mad urge to laugh. "Yeah, OK." As he spoke, a terrific blow fell upon the front door, shaking it in its frame. Blair cried out and started violently. Jim shouted too and tried to hold him, but he wasn't strong enough to support them both. He managed a clumsy two-step, then Blair yelped as his weight came down on his bad ankle. Struggling to hold him, Jim tripped on the end table behind the sofa, and the light table tumbled over and flipped up, spilling books and catching Jim soundly in the thigh as they both fell. It hurt far more than it should have, as though the cumulative effect of so many blows and so many shocks was finally catching up with him, and this last slapstick was simply beyond endurance. He curled over Blair on the floor, grunting at the pain. Blair's fists were still twisted in the front of Jim's sweater, and Blair was groaning too. In between groans he was laughing.

"Chief," Jim whispered when he could manage it, understanding for the first time how his own laughter must have frightened Blair. "Are you all right?"

It was an idiotic question, one Blair didn't even bother to answer. Blair craned his head back just as another terrific blow smashed against the front door. Both of them jerked at the sound, and Blair stopped trying to see behind himself. "Just tell me that door is locked," he whispered, still sounding as though he were trying not to laugh. "Please."

It was a horrifying and somehow hilarious thought. "I locked it after Joey left." Jim raised his head to double-check all the same. The deadbolt was pushed home, the chain in place. Jim saw the dark glitter of round glass in the spy hole, too. The angle was wrong from him to see through the door, but the thought of what might be looking back with blind eyes made him drop his head fast. "It's locked," he muttered.

Another terrific crash made the front door rattle in its frame. Blair squeezed his eyes shut, his fists tightening in Jim's sweater. "Ross knew," he breathed, his voice shaking. "He told us in the library. Like his, uh, contingency plan in case he didn't make it out alive with that damned book -- oh shit." Blair broke off as another blow thundered against the front door. Jim could hear bones breaking and flesh sloughing away at the impact.

He slid his arms around Blair's shoulders and lowered his head until his forehead nearly touched Blair's. They had to stop this somehow. If nothing else, they had to get out before they both went insane. "So what can we do about it?" he asked, almost begging.

Blair's eyes opened wide. "Jesus, man, how would I know?" His voice broke. "I kept telling Eddie and Susan, I don't know anything about any of this. It doesn't have anything to do with me." His fists worked convulsively, clutching and releasing the front of Jim's sweater.

"Easy," Jim said, feeling anything but calm himself. He held the back of Blair's neck with his hand and lowered his head further, so he could lay his cheek against Blair's. The wounds on Blair's forearm had begun to bleed again, and Sandburg reeked of blood and terror. It was far preferable to the smell of the dead man trying to beat down their front door. "Then we've got to get out of here," Jim told him. "Come on, try to sit up. We'll go out the back."

"Yeah." Blair nodded once, quick and nervous, and finally unclenched one hand and laid his palm flat against Jim's chest. "Yeah, all right."

Jim rolled to his side, groaning at the pressure against the new bruise on his thigh and feeling the tender edges of the cut over his hip tearing open. "He's pretty spry for a dead guy, but I think we can beat him," Jim said, mostly to distract himself from the pain. A laugh bubbled up, but when it escaped it sounded more like a sob. Blair put his hand on Jim's face in sympathy for an instant, then rolled onto his side as well and pushed himself up until he was sitting, moaning at every change in position.

"Would it help if I wrapped up your ankle first?" Jim asked, drawing one knee up and getting ready to stand. "Maybe you could put a little more weight on it, move a little faster if it was stable."

Three thundering blows crashed against the front door in succession. "Oh jeez," Blair groaned at every crash. "We don't have time for that. We've got to go now."

Ross's spongy, splintering fists and forearms hit the door again. Blair took Jim's outstretched hands, gripping tightly. "Enough to wake the dead," Blair muttered miserably, and only then seemed to hear what he had said. He gave a bark of laughter that didn't have much amusement in it.

"Ready?" Jim said, not entirely certain he had the strength to pull Blair to his feet.

"Yeah already, come on, come on."

As Jim began to stand, though, he felt something give in his side, and he had to let go. He curled up, his forehead on his knee, panting and trying to control the pain. Blair moaned along with him, as though Jim's pain was just as agonizing for him. "Forget it," Blair said, his hands on Jim's bowed shoulders. "We'll do it another way." He pulled at Jim's sleeve, urging him to crawl, and somehow Jim did it, the two of them dragging themselves around the back of the loveseat, shoving books and the overturned table out of their way, then around the corner of the sofa where they collapsed against the back of it. It wasn't much protection, but somehow not being in a direct line to the door felt less vulnerable. Jim dropped his head against the back of the sofa, holding his aching ribs with both hands. Blair was beside him, breathing as hard as Jim was but otherwise silent.

As Sandburg's silence stretched on, Jim started to tremble, and he reached out for Blair's hand. Finding it, Blair's fingers wrapped tightly around his own, just as the thing out in the hallway spoke.

It was voice and sense only. Whatever animated that decomposing flesh could force air through its lungs and out its mouth, but there wasn't enough left of the lips or tongue or vocal chords to form words. That was a small blessing, Jim thought, and realized he was screaming along with it. He broke off at once, and turned enough to press his forehead to Blair's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Chief," he whispered, squeezing Blair's hand tighter, meaning the apology to stand for all his weakness and all his terror.

Blair bent his head to rest against Jim's, reaching his other hand to cup the edge of Jim's jaw. "I think there's a way," he said very, very quietly. The wheezing, tortured cry in the hallway ended, and another crash shook the front door in its frame.

"We'll go down the back steps on our hands and knees if we have to," Jim said, suddenly knowing he would not like whatever Blair was about to tell him.

"Like Rudolph Bollingen's housekeeper," Blair said, as though the name would mean something to Jim. "When the police broke down the front door, they found her cooking Bollingen's hands and arms in a soup pot. You know why she was doing that?"

"Sandburg, I don't know what you're talking about. We've got to get out of here."

"I figured it out while they had me strung up in the garden," Blair said, unhappy but absolutely inflexible. "It's a belief as old as mankind. I guess people believe it still. Why else would we go to the trouble and expense of embalming the dead?"

"I don't understand," Jim said helplessly. "Blair, please --"

"It's because no matter what we say, we don't actually believe the corpse is an inanimate object, you know? And it isn't, not really. Until you embalm it or burn it or excarnate it, it's this mass of disgusting, decomposing meat. All sorts of biological processes are going on, so from a certain point of view, it's not dead at all. And if it's not dead, then maybe the soul hasn't gone very far. Maybe it's just waiting for the opportunity to come back."

Another crash against the front door. Blair shouted in fright and squeezed Jim's hand so tightly the bones in Jim's hand began to ache. "Did you know that in Greece and Tibet and Catal Huyuk and Amasya and Borneo they used to strip the flesh from the bones before burying a body? Laplanders would remove the entrails and smoke and dry them in the sun. Do you see what I'm saying here, Jim?"

"No --" Jim said, but Blair wasn't to be stopped, talking on frantically, impassioned, as if the sheer flow of words would be enough to end the horror enveloping them.

"You almost can't find a society that allows the dead to rot on their own. Even like in Europe and the Balkans where bodies were buried, the custom right through the nineteenth century was to dig up the corpse after six months or so and scrub the flesh off bones before burying it again. Risky business, waiting so long. No wonder vampire legends are almost universal. And in Egypt before mummification came along as a way to make dead bodies inert, they would cut off the arms and legs of a corpse before they buried it. Why would they do that unless it was to make sure it couldn't walk? Jim," Blair was gasping, almost weeping, "In some dark, awful corner of our collective consciousness, we've always known that as long as a corpse lies rotting, there's a possibility of that."  He flung out his arm, jabbing a finger in the direction of the front door. "That the soul, or some twisted piece of it, might find a way back. Rudolph Bollingen was a necromancer. He was fucking around with life and death, trying to get to that -- that other place where death doesn't matter."

Blair's voice quavered, and he got up on his knees, groaning but unstoppable, and grasped Jim's upper arms through the sweater, fingers digging into the muscle painfully in his frenzy. "His housekeeper was trying to render the flesh from his bones one piece at a time because she knew otherwise he might come back."

Madness. In any other circumstances, a madness Jim might have welcomed, since Blair fighting his way through a problem with a blur of words and knowledge was such a heartbreaking reminder of the ordinary world. The world wasn't ordinary anymore, though. Maybe Blair could find a place in his world view for a dead man trying to pound down their front door, but Jim couldn't follow him there. He couldn't. "What are you saying, Sandburg?" Jim's voice was harsh with terror. "Wait until that thing beats down our front door, and then meet it with a carving knife and a stock pot?"

"Dammit, Jim," Blair shouted back in frustration, "I don't know. I just thought --" He took a shuddering breath and all the fire went out of him. He let Jim go and sagged back on his haunches. The position must have hurt his ankle, because he groaned and shifted onto his hip, awkwardly trying to stretch his leg out in front of himself. "I don't know. You're right. It doesn't do us any good."

"Come on," Jim said. "We'll go down the back stairs. We just have to get out of here before we both lose our minds."

"It won't work," Blair said flatly, despairing. "I'm too slow with this ankle. It'd take me an hour to get down the stairs. What if it's faster than we are?"

Jim looked back at him, not knowing what to say. They were both imagining the same thing, he knew -- meeting that dead thing on the narrow, dark stairs down to the basement.

"What's that?" Blair suddenly asked, at the same time Jim realized the noises out in the hall had changed. No splintering crashes had fallen against the door for long moments. Instead, Jim could hear soft, wet patting sounds, soggy flesh against wood. Then a rattle. Dear God in heaven, it was trying the knob. He didn't have to tell Blair. Blair had pressed the back of his hand hard against his mouth, his eyes going wide with the same terrible realization. It didn't really matter, Jim tried to tell himself, fighting back the cold helplessness of panic. The door was locked. That thing could turn the knob all it wanted, and there was no logical reason why a dead man trying a door knob was so much worse than a dead man flinging itself mindlessly against it.

No logical reason, anyway, until Blair moaned, "Oh Jim, the key."

"Chief," Jim moaned just as softly, though he wanted to scream. "You promised you wouldn't leave the key over the lintel anymore."

"I haven't been, I swear. Just last week when Benoite needed to borrow my copy of Des chinoises and I wasn't going to be around -- oh, god, Jim, I'm so sorry."

The soft paddling sounds continued, hideously patient. "We've got to go," Jim said, squeezing the words out of his constricted throat. He grabbed the sleeve of Blair's bathrobe. "We can't wait anymore."

"No." Blair pulled his arm free. "No, Jim, I know what to do. There is another way. Where's that book?"

"Christ, Sandburg." Jim was all but weeping. "What book?"

"That Huysmans translation of Unaussprechlichen Kulten." Blair's voice had become horribly bright and brittle, cracking as he tried to explain to Jim. "It had the symbols in it. The ones Susan and Eddie wrote on my board in class, the ones they wrote on me." Blair made a violent gesture, and before Jim realized what he intended, he had grabbed the back of the sofa and hauled himself to his feet with a cry like a scream. "It must be in my room," he gasped out, clinging to the back of the sofa. "Help me, Jim, I've got to get it."

Jim managed to get to his feet, ruthlessly driving back the pain in his side. "What do you want with that?" he demanded, taking Blair's arm and pulling it around his neck. "Chief, we should just go. I'm walkin' a real fine line here."

Blair refused to rest his weight against Jim, trying to stand by himself even as he demanded Jim's help. "I can use those signs, too," he burst out. "I can send Ross back."

For a long moment Jim couldn't react at all, and in that instant, Blair impatiently pulled himself free and turned around, balancing himself against the back of the sofa. "There it is," Blair said suddenly, "Oh thank god, it's still right there on the coffee table."

Out in the hallway, something small and metallic hit the wooden floorboards.

Blair started as though it had been a gunshot, then in an inelegant but efficient move, hoisted himself up onto the back of the sofa and rolled over onto the seat. He hissed sharply in pain but didn't slow down, sitting up fast and reaching across for the book on the table. There was a soft wet thump against the front door, as if something large and damp and clumsy had been carelessly propped against it. Blair flinched at the sound but didn't look up from his book. He was flipping through with desperate haste, bending down low over the coffee table to see it by the light of the single hurricane lamp. "I know there's a way," he was muttering, more to himself than to Jim. "I saw it last night when I was trying to make some sense out of this crap."

"No," Jim said abruptly. "Sandburg, you can't."

Blair turned his head to look up at Jim, his face white and desperate and determined. "Yes I can. They used this evil to hurt you, man. They used it to hurt us both, because they thought I wouldn't fight back. They've already been wrong once tonight." A gleam that was half terror and half exultation shone in Blair's eyes. "I'm gonna do it again, and end this for once and for all."

No, Jim thought. This wasn't right. That look on Sandburg's face wasn't right. Ridiculous to have qualms at this point, maybe, when everything had already gone wrong beyond Jim's power to imagine it ever being right again, but the thought of Blair re-writing those obscene symbols made Jim feel sick and faint with despair. "Sandburg, don't," he said, uncertainty choking his voice. Blair was bent low over the book again, and didn't even lift his head to answer. He just waved his hand in a gesture of abrupt dismissal.

On the other side of the front door, clumsy hands were patting the floor with blind persistence, looking for the dropped key. Quite a job with no eyes. Jim's bullet had put out one, the other was probably oozing down its cheek. It made up in patience what it lacked in dexterity, though. Pat, pat, pat.  A sticky sound as bits and pieces were left behind on the floorboards.

Then Jim sensed it. He thought it was more subtle and ephemeral than scent, though that's what it must have been all the same, and Jim was distantly astonished he could smell something so fragile and sweet when the air in the loft was as thick and foul as the draft from a slaughter house. It was something of Blair, the same faint trace Jim had sensed from the first, and at long last he knew why. He heard the thunk of metal that wasn't the key against the floorboards, and remembered the high school ring on Ross's hand and the long strands of Sandburg's hair caught in the setting, gleaming under the florescent lights of the library.

Without another thought Jim stepped over the back of the sofa, standing on the cushions to step down to the floor. He snatched the book out from under Sandburg's hands and flung it away.

"Jim!" Blair lurched to his feet, having to hold on to Jim to manage it. "What do you think you're doing?"

Jim held Blair's upper arms, trying to steady him without falling over himself. He didn't know how to explain what he was so certain of to Blair when he had nothing but memory and gut instinct. Two nights ago in the library Jim had taken a wrong turn into the dark illusion of the city, that other place where Blair had told him death didn't matter. Then the elevator doors had opened, and the color and light that was Blair Sandburg had stepped out into the lobby and lit a path through the darkness.

And now Blair wanted to use that darkness himself.

No. Oh, no, nothing was worth that, never, no matter what.

Out in the hall, a soft weight thumped against the door, and then came the sharp, quiet scrape of metal against metal. "Jim!" Blair struggled wildly in his arms for a moment, and Jim tightened his grip to hold him. Blair stopped fighting at once and stood motionless save for the heaving of shoulders as he panted for breath. "Jim, listen to me," he said, trying to make his voice calm. "I need that book. You've got to let me go, then walk over there and get it up off the floor and bring it to me. I can stop this, I'm sure of it, but I've got to have that book."

"No," Jim said. "Not that way. You can't."

"Dammit, Jim, yes I can." For all his vehemence, Blair's voice was still soft. He reached up and managed to touch Jim's cheek with the side of his hand. "Believe me, man, I know what you're thinking. It's all been way too much. It's still way too much. This is all my fault, but I know how to fix it. You've got to let me try."

"No," Jim told him. "Not that way. Not their way."

The soft scraping sounds ended with a solid, forcible chunk as the key slipped into the hole, and Blair screamed, "Jim, for the love of God--" He pulled away violently, but Jim caught him and yanked him back, throwing his arms around Blair to hold him against his chest. Blair shouted at him and fought to free himself. The key turned in the lock, releasing the deadbolt. Blair hit at Jim's back and wrenched his body from side to side, trying to knock Jim off balance, but Jim braced himself with his feet apart, keeping Blair pulled to his chest through sheer strength, and tucked his head down close to Blair's shoulder so Blair couldn't hit him as he thrashed his head and shouted and begged.

"You don't know what you're doing," he wailed furiously. "Jim, you've been listening to that thing coming after us for three days now, haven't you? Jim, try to understand me! You're not yourself. Please, dammit, please let me stop this before it gets in." He beat his fists against Jim's back and sides, half-maddened with rage and terror. "Jim, you're out of your head! Do you understand me, man? You've got to let go!"

The door swung open as far as it could before the chain stopped it, and the change in air pressure dragged the worst of the reek over both of them. Jim kept his head buried hard against Blair's shoulder, his hands locked into fists across Blair's back. He was weeping as Blair screamed and fought and told him he was crazy. The door bounced against the flimsy security chain over and over again. "Goddamn you, Jim, let me go!"

His voice muffled against the shoulder of Blair's house robe, tears making his voice thick, Jim whispered, "But that's what he wants, Chief. That's why he's here."

Blair didn't relax, but for a shocked instant he stopped fighting and held himself rigid in Jim's arms. Jim could hear the wood splintering around the security chain and the groaning yield of the metal. His eyes squeezed shut, Blair's heart beating a furious tattoo against Jim's chest, his back and sides aching from Blair's clumsy, furious blows, he remembered the way Blair had looked stepping out of the elevator in that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt of his. All that color and light and the transcendent smile on Blair's face when he raised his eyes and saw Jim waiting for him. The memory gave Jim the words to tell Blair what he knew.

"If everything went wrong, they still had this, Sandburg. The hope that if you were angry and desperate enough, you would work their dirty magic for them. If you do it, he wins. He'll take everything you are." Blair didn't move or speak. "You can't fight a dead man," Jim said, telling Blair what he'd known from the first. "You can't possibly win."

For an endless moment Blair remained tense with fury in Jim's arms, and then one hand came up and he touched the back of Jim's head with his palm. He turned his face and looked toward the front door as the chain snapped and the door banged open. "I won't do it," Blair said to what stood beyond the open door. His voice was low and clear. "I'm sorry, Ross, but it's over, and you're dead."

The thing that used to be Blair's student shuffled wetly over the threshold, and Blair flinched violently, but he didn't look away. "I already told you," he said, raising his voice until he was shouting. He wasn't talking to Ross anymore. Something breathless and terrified wove a trembling high note through Blair's cry, but Jim heard other threads as well, and one of them shone like the golden light of Sandburg's laughter.

"I'm staying on my side of town," Blair screamed to the darkness. "And you're supposed to stay on yours."

All at once the air felt hot and sharp and alive to Jim. Blair hissed and wrapped his fists in the back of Jim's sweater, burying his face against Jim's neck and shoulder. "Forgive me," Blair whispered, and then the floor under their feet rose with a sudden jolt and rocked hard. Bricks and mortar ground against each other, roaring, and the wooden beams moaned. The hurricane lantern rolled off the coffee table and smashed. The flame guttered wildly for an instant in a pool of spreading wax before it died, and the thing on the threshold collapsed into itself like a pile of greasy rags. As the last shudders of the aftershock died, Jim heard Ross's high school ring hit the floor and go rolling across the boards until it hit the kitchen island and fell over.

Blair's hands, still wrapped in the back of Jim's sweater, suddenly let go, and his head lolled back.

"Sandburg!" Blair was a deadweight in his arms, and although Jim would not look toward the huddled thing at the front door, he could see the cold blue flames out of the corner of his eye. They licked at the terrible folds and edges of the motionless heap, consuming it from within.

Jim did not think he had the strength to hold himself up any longer, much less Blair, but he made it to the windows dragging Blair with him all the same. He shifted Blair in his arms so Sandburg's head lay on his shoulder, and he swung the window open to the balcony. The cold night air smelled clean and sane, and Blair gasped and lifted his head. His eyes were confused, but he looked trustingly up at Jim. "So tired," he said. "Isn't it morning yet?"

Jim brushed his lips over Blair's brow. "Soon now," he said, and it was the truth, even though dawn was still six hours away.
 
 

***
 
 

Continued
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